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Crafting Believable Dialogue

Crafting Believable Dialogue

Dialogue is a tool used to further the action, to give us a sense of characterization and to ultimately drive the story along.
Roger Colby

“Show” don’t tell

A lot of our communication happens through body language and tone. Instead of using adverbs to get a point across, let the actions of the character speak for them.

Example 1a*

“I don’t want to dance,” she said pensively. “I just want to stand here.”
“Give me a break,” he huffed angrily. “I only wanted to hold your hand.”

Example 1b*

Everyone danced, their bodies swaying slowly to the beat of “Makin’ Love Out of Nothing at All”.
As Rick reached for her hand, Judy’s face drew down, a perfect scowl.
“I… I just don’t feel like dancing,” she whispered, then said again louder over the din. “I just don’t feel like dancing.”
Rick’s eyes watered slightly, his hand going to his nose as if to stifle a sneeze.
“I only wanted to hold your hand.”

Develop a unique voice for your characters

Your characters personality, history, time period and location should all influence the way they talk.

Are they gruff or taciturn? Use short clipped words.
Are they bubbly and talkative? Long bright fountains of words.
Do they come from a place with a distinct colloquial sound? Use it, but don’t abuse it. A little goes a long way.

Also, remember your time period. If you’re writing historic fiction don’t use modern slang unless there are time travelers involved.

We don’t speak with proper grammar

Very few characters speak with proper grammar – and those who do should stick out because of it. We use contractions and can be awkward, fumbling fools of speakers. Don’t be glib. Don’t be too correct. Do use the proper writing grammar to let your characters know what they’re reading. Reading your dialog aloud will help to identify potentially stilted sections.

Avoid “he said/she said”

Those arguments are trying enough in real life. Don’t force them upon your readers. Interspersing actions with your dialogue can go a long way to helping this, and remembering that every bit of dialog doesn’t necessarily need to call out the speaker – especially if you’ve developed unique voices for your characters

Remember pace

The tone of your dialog can set the pace for the scene, so use it.

Example 2

Turner took a long draw on his cigarette and blew out small circles of smoke, “We should leave soon.”

Example 3

“Go! Go! Go!” Excitement practically vibrated off of Maria as she bounced in the confined space of the bleachers.

Use the ‘layered’ approach**

Write first draft in a way that feels natural then fix the dialogue/action-description ratio in your editing

Exercises

Break It Up

Write a conversation using this format to break apart your dialog and actions

Character name: Single colon if talking immediately
Character name:: if there is an action, thought, or other information before speaking :: Hi! With that second double colon I am now speaking :: but I can go back to description at any time ::

Here’s an example:

Gideon:: received his message and being out and about was closer to Sean’s office then his rooms and decides it’d be easier to just drop in instead of sending a message. Reaching the room instead of knocking he just opens the door and is surprised to find that Sean is not there. He should be waiting for a response to his message. Sees Carma on the couch and crouches down next to her, touches her shoulder lightly :: Carma
Carma:: Opens her eyes. Then seeing Gideon smiles slightly. She likes him a lot. He reminds her of Tony :: Is mom here yet?
Gideon:: brushes a hair off her forehead, shakes his head :: I wish she were. I was hoping Sean might be able to give me some news. Do you know where he went?

Now pick two or three characters of your own and write a short scene where they meet a new friend or enemy. Include any descriptions that come to mind. Any extraneous information can be removed later.

Characterize Your Protagonist/Antagonist

Describe their personality

Abrupt or Long-Winded?

Do they have an accent?

Do they use colloquialisms (If so, which ones)?

Do they mumble or speak clearly?

What is their favorite explicative?

What is their level of education?

Are they an introvert or an extrovert?

What are their beliefs?

Does the way they speak change in relation to another character or where they are in the story?

Are there psychological influences?

What are their goals when speaking?

Parental/family influence

Favorite part of speech (noun/verb or lots of adjectives)?

What are their speaking tics?

How complex is their speech?

References

*Writing is Hard Work: Writing Believable Dialog
Writing is Hard Work: The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue
Writing is Hard Work: Emotive Dialog
Wordserve Watercooler: Writing Believable Dialog
Woosh Editing: Writing Believable Dialog
Novel Bootcamp: Writing Believable Dialog
**Laura Howard: Writing Believable Dialog